Reflections after the second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation

Survivors of a brutal policy regime are left wondering what we do with history and National Truth and Reconciliation Day


The summer bloomed bright and beautiful over Lac Ste. Ann, Alberta the day of the Papal visit at the end of July. 

In the summer before the second National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, the sacred grounds had a summer concert vibe as music and videos played. 

People spread out blankets to sit in the sun, and to be witnesses to history.

“We have to keep our family in the church,” one survivor passionately told APTN News at Lac Ste. Ann. He was a survivor of the residential school system. 

There were different responses to the Papal apology with some survivors at the event saying they accepted the apology and others saying they hoped for more than words. 

Wilton Littlechild presented a headdress to the Pope a day before, at the site of the historic apology in Maskwacis. 

“For my family, I said to him, ‘I accept your apology. You’ve asked for a pardon. And on behalf of myself. As a student, former (residential) student and my family. We forgive you.

‘And may I give you this gift as a gesture of reconciliation? And he said, ‘Yes.’ So I put it on,” said Littlechild to APTN about his decision to gift the pope with a headdress.

Voices from all over the country weighed in on whether they thought that this was an appropriate gesture.

“Sometimes I think our people are too forgiving,” says Grand Chief George Arcand of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations at a press conference after the event.

In contrast, Jerry Saddleback an elder from Samson Cree First Nation says that for the Cree being forgiving is just a part of who we are.

“Anger is not our way,” says Jerry Saddleback, an elder at Samson Cree Nation “As a people we are always praying.”

Even among the different generations, there have been different terms that have emerged. 

The younger generation uses the term Land Back, and some go so far as to say that reconciliation is dead and that the focus must be on Indigenous sovereignty.

The Indian Act and resulting policies like the residential school system are a centerpiece of Canadian colonial policy. The Act enshrined into law unequal access to family, property, legal defense and eventually living conditions between Indigenous people and Canadian settlers.

After more than 160 years of residential schools, the 60s scoop and decades of land claims and a piece of legislation, the Indian Act, that inspired South African Apartheid, Indigenous people of all ages are left to wonder what we do with history.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)

Indigenous Watchdog is a federally registered non-profit dedicated to monitoring and reporting on how reconciliation is advancing on the critical issues that are impacting the Indigenous world – including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action.

They track the calls to action and relevant news items around them. 

Currently, they report that 53 per cent are in progress, 22 of the projects are stalled, 13 per cent of the calls to action have not been started, and 12 percent are completed. 

APTN reported that only one province and two territories have followed the federal governments lead in making Sept. 30, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation a statutory holiday with pay.

The country still does not know the best way to mark a truth and reconciliation event.

It is the same for survivors. Inevitably in a conversation on reconciliation, a survivor will ask, “what do I have to reconcile, I was a child?”

Forgiveness is our way

“The aims, the sweep of colonization, it worked,” says Samson Cree Elder Jerry Saddleback. 

He says people are not taught their traditional ways and do not get a traditional education.

“Our normal education process started from the earliest time of conception. The first known conception is when you begin the process… I would say it is an embracing of physical, mental, spiritual and emotional balance,” says Jerry.

Jerry says when he talked to another elder he had tried to explain it as a tsunami of cultural annihilation. 

“He turned and looked at me and said ‘it is not over. It is beginning to subside and some of us know what has been lost, but we are frantically trying to swim around and pick up the pieces,’” says Jerry.

The healing effects of forgiveness 

One reason why people might avoid forgiving abuses against them is that it feels like the offender gets away with something — especially if he or she never apologized or faced any legal consequences. There are studies that show that forgiveness for its own sake is healing. 

A 2005 study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that participants who considered themselves more forgiving had better health across five measures: physical symptoms, the number of medications used, sleep quality, fatigue, and medical complaints. 

The study found that this was because the process of forgiveness reduced negative emotions and stress.

“The victim relinquishes ideas of revenge, and feels less hostile, angry, or upset about the experience,” the authors wrote.

A 2018 study published in the journal Trauma, Violence & Abuse reviewed the outcomes of several years of studies on forgiveness The results showed that therapy that focused on forgiveness had a positive effect on participants.

Many of the people who came to one of the events during the Papal visit appreciated the apology and moved towards forgiveness. 

But others outright rejected the apology citing more empty promises from the Catholic Church.

Generational differences in understanding

Maria Montejo, the manager for Dodem Kanonsha’ an Indigenous education and cultural facility in Toronto says she has been reflecting a lot on the varying responses between the generations when it comes to major historical moments.

“Even if we look at what happened with the passing of the Queen they are so different,” says Montejo. “I very rarely find a uniform response. Everyone is on a different learning journey and engaging in different ways.

“You see the full spectrum of responses… everyone is in a different place in terms of how much time they’ve taken to really reflect on history.”

Montejo was a Guatemalan refugee as a child. She is a member of the Mam Jakaltec community of Indigenous people who reside in the Xajla territory of Guatemala.

Twenty-five years ago, Maria and her family came to Canada as refugees and settled in Toronto. 

She worked with a local Elder, Diane Hill from Six Nations and other Indigenous elders.

She says that there is a lot of raw emotion on days like September 30, but that is a part of what makes the day a powerful healing opportunity.

“For me, because we went through it last year is that spiritually on that day there seems to be a different energy that is generated collectively,” says Montejo.

Last year, she recalls that all of the unconscious pain really surfaced for her.

“I was on the TTC, that’s the Toronto subway at 2:15 p.m. when they took a moment of silence. I didn’t expect it,” says Montejo. The significance of 215 was based on the discovery of possible graves at the former Kamloops residential school.

“They said we are going to pause all services at 2:15 for a minute to acknowledge all the children who didn’t make it home. This energy just moved through me and I just started to shake. Because they took that moment everyone on the subway was focused on it.

“Because I do healing work, I just let myself cry and I was crying and crying just standing there. I know many people were feeling that and sometimes we aren’t even aware we are feeling it.”

Montejo explains through the teaching of the seven generations, based on an ancient Haudenosaunee philosophy that the decisions we make today should create a better world for seven generations in the future, that some of the grief people may be carrying is that of ancestors.

“I don’t think anyone expects to stand in the TTC crying, but you have to give yourself that permission because it releases the grief in the water,” she says. 

Montejo says the high emotions that come from September 30 are a part of why the day is so important.

“We are learning what our parents and grandparents went through,” says Montejo, “but for them, they lived the experience.”

Her mother, talking as a survivor of religious violence in Central America, has told her when you live through that sort of experience you feel thankful you can have a home or feed your family.

“There’s a grace and a gratitude that comes from just being able to be alive,” says Montejo.

More focus on queer and Two-Spirit needed in communities

Jack Saddleback, is a Two-Spirit man who is also from Samson Cree Nation who now lives in Saskatoon. His two oldest brothers went to a residential school and his three older sisters went to day schools.

“The TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) tried to do its best with holding those current power structures accountable while also keeping them close and keeping them interested,” says Jack Saddleback. 

He says he appreciates all of the hard work of people like Hon. Murray Sinclair have put in.

“We have seen the face value aspects of the systems of power. We need to dig deeper and find out how these have impacted our societal roles,” says Jack. He is Two-Spirit. 

Jack recalls that during his time as a story collector for the Truth and Reconciliation, a Two-Spirit elder asked to speak to another Two-Spirit person.

“At first this person, in their own community… they just were. They weren’t expected to act a certain way…the Eurocentric viewpoint of gender,” he says, adding that when they entered the school system they were exposed to bias and judgement.

“The teachers and administrators [at residential schools] were teaching and brainwashing these young kids into their ways, malicious sort of ways,” says Jack. “Now the social side of things doesn’t get talked about enough…those same family members this person had gone to residential schools now bullied him.

“The system told them what was and was not acceptable.”

He says this has made it difficult for some people to heal from the rejection they faced.

“The challenge is trying to balance that with holding our own people accountable as well. As much as I want to say I am excited about this September 30 and the whole TRC, I am also quite skeptical,” says Jack. 

“I say this as a number of folks are not well aware of the implications of the residential schools and the impositions of these world views.”

Jack says more work needs to be done to see September 30 as more than a holiday.

Despite the differing opinions on what reconciliation means to different Indigenous people, according to Jerry, the most important thing is that the communities and cultures have survived. “Many of us died [by colonization] but no matter what we are still here,” says Jerry.

 

Online journalist / Edmonton

Danielle is a Métis writer, journalist, editor, educator, and podcaster who lives in Treaty 6 (Edmonton, Alberta). She has written for both local and international audiences. You can read (or hear) her work at Canadaland, Chatelaine, Toronto Star (Edmonton), Gig City, BUSTLE, Canadian True Crime Podcast, The Sprawl and now APTN News. Danielle covers politics, arts and culture, and Indigenous Issues.

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